I’m in art school, and I love it. I love the high-falutin’ theory and the hands-on craft, the caffeinated nights and high-pressure critiques, the intensity of the inspiration and the challenge of the competition. I love that at the end of the day, my GPA is based on what I enjoy doing most. Art school has been an overwhelmingly positive choice for me, but also a complicated one. The obvious downsides include the thousands of dollars of student debt that I’m incurring and my practical concerns about the real-world utility of a BFA. But there are other, less-obvious ones: the fact that while I’m doing this “following my heart” thing, my non-art-school peers are studying climate science, social work, human rights law—you know, simple stuff like SAVING THE WORLD. They’re doing all this important, crucial work, and I’m being trained in proper thumbtack installation and graded on things like “appropriateness of color choice.” Slow clap.
But all I’m doing when I dip into that black hole of comparisons is discrediting my education and my hard work. In reality, I don’t think art is a trivial thing to devote four years (even a whole life!) to. I’ve spent the past four years practicing and thinking about my craft(s) and learning to grow my critical brain. Not “critical” like your mom when she’s telling you how tragically messy your room is (True Life); I mean the kind of critical that looks at something as minute as the specific typeface a newspaper uses or as massive as the historical, political, and social backdrop to a given art movement, and asks: “Why is that?” The kind of critical that questions everything to gain understanding, then channels that new knowledge into a creative impulse, resulting in work that’s more informed, more directed, more interesting. This kind of critical wants me to do something important with my concern and curiosity about the world, and knows that art, writing, and all manner of culture-making are more than important—they’re crucial. Even though I don’t really have a take-it-to-the-streets, grassroots-activist bone in my body, I know, because of my art education (and my personal dedication), that I have power. No—powers, plural. Superpowers, really. Here are just a few of them. (And they’re not just for art-school students—these are the kinds of realizations that I think/hope can help any person with a creative bent navigate their way out of self-doubt and into the zone of self-assurance, which is where the real shit gets done.)
Superpower No. 1: You can make your own media.
There are so many things to hate and be frustrated about in mainstream media—just for starters, how about the fact that 99.999% of the protagonists on television are straight, skinny, cisgendered, able-bodied white people? We spend a lot of time talking about how unacceptable this is, how it’s made so many of us feel inadequate in some way, but what do we actually do about it? Because here’s the dope thing: We can do a lot about it. We can make our own media. So many of you Rookies are doing this already with your own blogs, zines, and art practices. Let’s keep it going. Change the paradigm!
Superpower No. 2: If you are entertaining people, they will listen.
Music, film, comics, television, GIFs: These things are engaging because they are fun. People like fun—I mean, most of the time! Entertaining an audience is the easiest way to get them to pay attention. I think a lot of entertainment gets dismissed as vapid, because a lot of pop culture is vapid. But also, a lot of it’s not! There are shows like The Colbert Report that make me laugh and up my current-events game. There are films that have given me more insight into American history than any of my high school classes did. There are pop songs like “Flawless” that sample Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about feminism and blow that genius up into a mainstream hit. In other words, these formats of entertainment are powers within themselves. Take them and run, young geniuses!
This is not to say that entertaining people is the only way to go, artistically. Sometimes it’s just not appropriate! Some subjects are too horrible or complicated or obscure or difficult to be expressible in a standard mainstream format. Not to mention that focusing on entertainment might run counter to your goal—the way we’re so easily sucked into popular culture and mass media may be the exact thing you want to confront and challenge in your work. Experimental and challenging work is what drives innovation, a word I am sick of hearing because it is so corporately co-opted and beige, but this kind of work is just as important to our culture as any massively famous artist’s. It keeps art relevant and radical and flexible and fascinating and reminds us that there are more possibilities than we can imagine.
Superpower No. 3: Images and words make our world go ’round.
Generally, most humans are smart, but we’re all quite impressionable. Yes, even you! Me! Everyone! It’s just true that what we watch, read, and look at affects how we see the world. Of course! We’re all aware of the pernicious influence that obscenely unrealistic beauty ideals in fashion magazines have on our psyches, right? It works the other way, too. Images that are positive or subversive are just as influential. I’m not talking about hokey, guidance-counselor-y “positive” media that’s all “Just be yourself!” and “Wholesome fun for all!” I mean, I hope we can all be a little more subtle than that.
I’ll use a really personal, simple example here: Around the age of 19, I rediscovered Beyoncé. I hadn’t listened to her much since her days with Destiny’s Child, a group I was obsessed with, but when I came back to her, my obsession returned, bigger and stronger this time. And I’m so glad it did.
Before I had a ton of self-confidence, I borrowed some of Beyoncé’s. Whenever I needed a boost—before my walk to school, say, or while escaping stressful social situations—I would go to my room and watch her music videos or listen to her albums, and I would feel a little better about myself. She was like a life raft that I clung to, cruising with grace and assurance through a sea of haters, NBD, high-fiving some dolphins on the way, until I reached the tiny dinghy that was my own self-confidence at the time.
One thing it was easy for me to feel bad about was my body, and a major source of that insecurity was my legs. I used to loathe my legs. I hated the way they looked from the time it became culturally sanctioned for me to feel that way—let’s go with age 12, thanks America—because my thighs are wider than my calves, which is true of the legs of most women in the world, but not the ones I was seeing in the magazines I was obsessed with as a teenager. Then, at some point deep into my Beyoncé fangirling, I realized that I didn’t feel that way anymore. I hadn’t been aware of changing my mind, but no doubt it was an effect of my hours upon hours of late-night GIF searches, music-video marathons, and pasting pictures of Beyoncé in my planner. Without even consciously clocking it, I was absorbing hundreds of images of a gorgeous, culturally dominant woman whose legs, while still very thin, had a curve to them, sort of like mine. Literally, just repeated exposure to images of Beyoncé’s legs made me feel better about my own. This may seem trite, but I think girls understand what I’m saying. This kind of small change creates ripples that radiate out bigger and bigger into your life. If the art in my life can change how I see myself, think about how art in society can change how people see people of color, queer people, poor people, and women, and how we treat the earth. This may sound like I’m really stretching a small thing, but small is a piece of everything. Life is just a big space filled with small moments, each of which is remarkably influential.
So if you’re a maker of pictures, you have, like, presidential power over your audience’s eye-to-brain receivers. Like all superpowers, this one can be used for good or evil. It’s my conviction that together, all of us Rookies can change society and its warped views on women. Some of us will do it through policy, some through education, others by speaking out and marching and generally shaking shit up. Some of you will do it just by setting an example with the way your live your lives. And some of us will do it through art.
People need to hear girls’ voices to balance out our hella lopsided world. We need to be out there sharing our views, our stories, our visions. Write memoirs, draw portraits, tell stories, make zines, compose songs—pretty much any creative practice can connect strongly with people and open up your world for someone else to understand better. I used to worry that there was something narcissistic and self-indulgent about writing and making art about my own life—like, who am I to think anyone would care about my life? Let me rephrase that: I used to worry that there was something narcissistic and self-indulgent about writing and making art about my life—and that that was bad. Real talk, everyone is self-indulgent and self-involved—we’re all selves here, come on. And the truth is, most people want to hear stories, and they like hearing stories from and about other people. Art is particularly good at forging human connection. Sharing our personal stories and points of view generates empathy, and empathy is basically our emotional H20 that makes, like, the photosynthesis of a productive society happen. Don’t doubt the power of your personal stories. The world needs more of them. Tell them, in whatever form suits you best. You don’t even have to wait to be asked.
I know I don’t need to justify creative pursuits to y’all: If you’re in it, you know that it just feels right. What I want to do with you is get real about the possibilities of what you can do if you happen to be creative and smart (I bet you are) and want to make a practice out of it (I bet you can). It is OK if you are more passionate about paintings than you are about protests, and it’s OK if you want to go to art school (or opt out of higher education altogether and just make your stuff) when there are so many other options. Art-things can give us surprising ways—important, constructive ways— to look at ourselves and our culture; without them, we’d probably sink into a sad puddle of complacency…boring!
It’s like this: Whether you go to art school or hone your art game in other spaces, now’s the time for you to learn how to use images, words, sounds, and other materials to shape our culture. I’ll be the first to admit that my art isn’t necessarily about to put food in people’s mouths. But I can use my creative impulse to connect with someone, change a mind, or contribute to some emotional experience that is enriching, because feelings aren’t frivolous. And chances are that if your art-thing is important to you, it will be important to someone else too.
IN CONCLUSION: What I really want is for you to never feel guilty for following the siren song of your creativity. Instead, feel special as fuq because you can use your inspired brain to do so many meaningful things. Learn your craft and hone your ideas. No matter how you do this, through school or ~street smartz~, you have two duties as a creative person: Be confident and constructive with your personal power…and then let it rip. ♦